In terms of national influence and gospel impact, the importance of Southern Baptist work in California cannot be overstated, agreed Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders and pastors from the state gathered at the Anaheim Convention Center Aug. 17.
“Southern Baptists are made up of a lot of different people and this room personifies that,” said SBC Executive Committee (EC) President and CEO Ronnie Floyd to approximately 300 California pastors and church leaders. “We value your partnership. If we’re going to do all that we need to do in this amazing state with the opportunity that abounds, it’s going to take all of us connected together with God and one another.”
In addition to a brief address by Floyd, a panel discussion included California Baptist leaders, Gateway Seminary President Jeff Iorg, SBC President Ed Litton and 2022 Pastors’ Conference President Matt Henslee.
Later in the program, Litton also presented the theme for the 2022 annual meeting: “Jesus: The Center of It All.” The unity that so many look for can only be found in Christ, he said. And while no one argues that, it nevertheless can become a difficult concept to put in action.
“In the SBC we are always on guard – and rightly so – about false theology,” he said. “But we also ought to be careful about false leadership. Jesus said of the Pharisees to do what they say, but do not follow them. In the same sense, we have a struggle between our orthodoxy and our orthopraxy.”
Southern Baptists, Litton urged, should focus on Jesus’ qualities as outlined in Colossians 1:15 – the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, all things in heaven and on earth created by Him and for Him. “He is also the head of the body, the church,” Litton said.
The gathering came months after 2020 census results revealed California as still the country’s most populous state with 39.5 million people, or 1 in 8 American residents. The net gain, however, included more people moving out of the state (resulting in the loss of a Congressional seat) while new residents arrived internationally and birth rates exceeded the number of deaths.
The state grew by more than 6.1% over the last decade, becoming more diverse than ever. And for the first time in the census’ history, whites are no longer the state’s largest ethnic group; Hispanics now hold that position.
As an example of the state’s demographics, panelist Mike Proud shared how the Orange County Southern Baptist Association, where he is director of missions, has 147 churches that speak 12 languages and represent 51 nationalities. Only 50 of those churches speak English as their primary language.
While diversity was a key part of the conversation, pastors’ experiences in sharing the gospel was a major topic for the panelists. Efforts to share in California can be met with stronger pushback than in other states. Panelists said that common background has built a steely resolve and unique brotherhood among pastors, who haven’t been able to gather together in a large group for 18 months.
“I’ve seen people come to Christ through trial, trauma and transition,” said Shawn Beaty, president of the California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) and senior pastor of Clovis Hills Community Church in Clovis. “I see a lot of guys out here leaning in with the gospel and watching the Lord nab people out of hell and bring them into discipleship with Jesus.”
Greg Davidson, CSBC Executive Board chairman and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Vacaville, recounted the numerous challenges California pastors face, whether government persecution from man or wildfires burning down entire cities. Such circumstances, he said, have refined him and his fellow pastors.
“Some people think we’re a little bit flaky, but that’s the opposite of the truth,” he said. “You can’t build a great church out here unless you build it on the foundation of the Word of God. It’s not gonna happen. These guys have fearlessly stood for the Word.”
It’s also built a unique camaraderie. “We love each other,” Davidson said. “We hang together, because if we don’t, we’re gonna hang separately.”
Proud also praised California pastors’ response over the last year to the COVID-19 crisis.
“They didn’t withdraw from the challenges,” he said. “They were like first responders, stepping in [to meet needs]. Because COVID presented a platform to reach hurting people in an unprecedented manner, we have heroes out here who stepped up.”
Pete Ramirez, CSBC associate executive director, also noted that a common trait found among 2,300 CSBC churches is a penchant for cooperation. “Our convention looks to resource the local church, and we do everything better when we work together,” he said.
“I believe God has given us a stewardship to bring unity [so] that we can reflect His glory … and people will be attracted to that. Our state convention has gone from playing defense to playing offense. We’re building partnerships and looking to make a difference in California, reaching the lost that Christ may be glorified.”
A West Coast resident since 1989, Iorg urged pastors to “stay mission-focused on getting the gospel to your community and around the world. Minimize the attention you give to all the rest of the nonsense that’s going on around you and [divisiveness] in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I recognize there are many issues that deserve a little bit of attention. But we must never, ever, get dissuaded from the gospel and the mission of the gospel.”
In his 18th year as Gateway’s president, Iorg reported how the seminary’s move to its Ontario campus five years ago and development of its online options prepared it for a worldwide pandemic “and we didn’t even know it.”
“We moved through COVID with very minimal disruption,” he said.
Henslee told attendees that the 2022 Pastors’ Conference would focus on assuring pastors of the honor in their role of presenting the gospel every week.
“I don’t believe you can be out-encouraged,” he said. “I think we need encouragement, and one of the great ways we can get it is through the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of us can be reminded of that through prayer, praise and preaching.”
Henslee served as a pastor of rural Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, N.M., before recently accepting a position as associational mission strategist for the Collin Baptist Association in Fairview, Texas. The speaking lineup for the Pastors’ Conference, he said, will include those with experiences from various places of ministry.
“We have a lot of differences, but we have one incredible thing in common and that’s our Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said.
The 2022 SBC annual meeting will take place at the Anaheim Convention Center June 12-13. It will be preceded by the two-day pastors’ conference, making its return after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 and this year’s Send Celebration temporarily taking its place. Hotel reservations for the annual meeting open Oct. 1.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)